Alan Hansen has a formula for winning the championship. You win when you play badly, you beat the teams around you and carry some luck with your results. This was the weekend when the Liverpool side he once captained fulfilled the third part of the equation.
An hour after a final whistle that had been met by strangled jeers across Anfield, Rafael Benitez was chatting to Spanish journalists, admitting that his side had, quite simply, performed badly – although he did not yet know whether Chelsea's failure to overcome Newcastle was a chance squandered or a thin consolation. Behind him a television, the sound turned down, was showing Manchester United bullying Aston Villa, a team they had not lost to since Hansen made his remark about winning nothing with kids.
However, by the time Benitez returned home Villa had more than held their own and he could almost convince himself that he had got away with it. Among the three main title contenders, the weekend had produced nothing more than a stalemate. And yet Liverpool were still wounded. Perhaps significantly, Steven Gerrard was absent and the game followed an international break – the one time Benitez's old demons of serious squad rotation come calling.
Last season, it worked to the extent that Liverpool won four of their six games after an international and drew with Chelsea, although this time the decision to start with Lucas Leiva rather than Xabi Alonso looked odd.
When Javier Mascherano was taken off instead of the young Brazilian, it was met by a rare bout of dissent from the Kop. Benitez argued that Mascherano had not been passing well and his opposite number, Roy Hodgson, agreed, saying that upon Alonso's introduction Fulham were hit by harder, deeper balls.
This season Benitez has proved he could beat Manchester United and Chelsea but capitalising on those victories has been rather more problematic. The defeat of Manchester United was followed up in the league by a goalless draw against Stoke, another club that would have travelled to Merseyside with a view to damage limitation. The aftermath of Liverpool's triumph at Stamford Bridge has been three wins in seven games.
Through Liverpool eyes, Fulham represented the most nakedly sacrificial of victims. They had never won at Anfield. Even in 1955, when Johnny Haynes led their attack and Liverpool were a mouldering pre-Shankly mess, they lost 7-0 here. And yet under Hodgson, there is a solidity about Fulham. "We didn't build a barricade, we tried to pressurise Liverpool all over the field," the Fulham manager reflected. "But we remain extremely humble. We know we are in a dogfight with a lot of other clubs."
Liverpool: (4-4-2) Reina; Arbeloa, Carragher, Agger, Aurelio; Kuyt (El Zhar 82), Leiva, Mascherano (Alonso 64), Riera (Babel 78); Keane, Torres. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Dossena, Hyypia, Benayoun.
Fulham: (4-4-2) Schwarzer, Pantsil, Hughes, Hangeland, Konchesky; Dempsey (Gera 84), Murphy, Bullard (Baird 90), Davies; Johnson, Zamora. Substitutes not used: Zuberbuhler (gk), Nevland, Gray, Stoor, Kallio.
Referee: M.Halsey (Lancashire).
Man of the match: Pantsil.
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